Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wolf In The Fold

One week after Obsession asked the audience to consider the question “will Kirk sacrifice everything for vengeance?” To which the only answer can be no. Wolf In The Fold asks the audience, “has Scotty suddenly become a murderer?”

How much does this matter? The audience goes into Obsession knowing Kirk's desire for revenge at all costs will take place within strictly defined boundaries. He's not going to strap himself to the anti-matter as bait and shriek, “from hell's heart I stab at thee,” before detonating. The episode succeeds or fails not on the strength of the ending, but on the way the story is told, and Obsession works because it is packed with incident. When the Enterprise crew discover the cloud vampire can travel through space it opens up the story. Kirk is no longer trying to track down a single monster skulking on a planet. Suddenly there's a high speed pursuit. Then the creature turns to attack and invades the ship becoming only the second foe to directly breach the sanctity of the Enterprise under its own power; Trelane was the first; others like Nomad are brought on board.

By contrast Dagger Of The Mind asks the audience, “is there something rotten in the Tantalus penal colony?” The episode fails because the script fills the next three acts with Kirk investigating, and finding that everything in the colony is good, before the reveal at the end of act three that there is something nasty going on after all. The episode doesn't attempt to make the investigation itself interesting or different (the one exception being the introduction of the Vulcan mind meld). There's no acknowledgement that setting up a place as nice, and then revealing it to have a dark secret, is an antique piece of storytelling. The script plods on as if the viewer has never encountered this type of story before and expects us to be amazed at the twist that Doctor Adams, the only other major character in the story, is actually the villain.

So is Wolf In The Fold like Obsession or Dagger Of The Mind? At the start it does look like Wolf In The Fold expects the audience to sit through 48 minutes of seeing Scotty accused of murder, before the surprise reveal of his innocence in the last act. In the teaser, even before the first murder is committed, the script heaps on unconvincing psychobabble to try and make the viewer believe something is wrong with Scotty.

MCCOY: ... Don't forget, the explosion that threw Scotty against a bulkhead was caused by a woman.
KIRK: Physically he's all right. Am I right in assuming that?
MCCOY: Oh, yes, yes. As a matter of fact, considerable psychological damage could have been caused. For example, his total resentment toward women.

But having set up the plot Robert Bloch's script seems to realise it's a narrative dead end to wring drama out of Scotty's predicament. Instead the story takes a turn towards farce, trapping Scotty in more unlikely and implausible situations. There are three murders, and each one makes Scotty look increasingly guilty. One of the problems for a writer is that the audience is often ahead of you in terms of plot development. The script does seem to acknowledge it knows the watching audience are waiting for Kirk and Spock to pull some technological rabbit out of a hat and clear Mr. Scott's name. At least, the watching adult audience knows Scotty can't be the killer. It's important to make the distinction between the way children and adults watch television. I can remember being a much more innocent viewer and essentially taking it on trust that what was shown was really happening.* If I saw Wolf In The Fold when I was younger I would have been horrified at what Scotty was doing.

There is certainly plenty of incident along the way. Aside from the murders we have a planet of prostitutes. “A completely hedonistic society,” as McCoy tells Scotty. Obviously the script can't come flat out and say it, but there are enough hints for dirty minded people like myself. Lines of dialogue trail off into meaningful ellipsis. Looking around the club Scotty asks, “you mean to tell me all these women, that all this is..?” Shortly afterwards Kirk tells McCoy, “I know a little place across town where the women...” Jealousy is disapproved of on Argelius II and men there should not get upset when they see the woman they love flirting with other men. In act two there's a séance, and in act three a courtroom scene. Two weeks after a similar one in The Deadly Years. The courtroom scene here is shorter, and has a better mix of characters. It does spend some time rehashing the plot from acts one and two, but generally it does a better job of moving the story on than the competency hearing in The Deadly Years.

It's worth taking stock of the plot at the end of act two when all three murders have been committed, and trying to work out how the viewer at home might expect the story to develop. Heroes falsely accused of murder are not a new development. Richard Kimble was on the run in The Fugitive from 1963 to August 1967. Obviously Scotty will be proved innocent, and if the murderer isn't a regular it has to be one of the guest cast.

Tark: 10-1. He's the father to Kara the first victim and appears to have no connection or motive for the second and third deaths. He's also not present for the killing of Lieutenant Tracy.

Morla: 5-1. Kara's fiancé. He has a motive for killing Kara, jealousy. Maybe killing her gave him a taste for murder? Like Tark he's not present when Lieutenant Tracy is murdered, but this is a science fiction show so he could have some unlikely gimmick which allows him to be the killer.

Mr. Hengist: evens. He's a petty bureaucrat more concerned about procedure and stopping Kirk muscling in on the investigation than finding out the truth. Like the first two suspects he's not present for the death of Lieutenant Tracy but before leaving he does see her beam down. He also seems too keen to railroad Scotty for the murder. However, in television drama the more suspicious a character the more likely they are to be innocent. He's the person you might expect to apologise to Kirk at the end of the episode by saying something like, “I may not agree with your methods but you get results.”

Prefect Jaris: 2-1 (favourite). Highest official on the planet Argelius II. Two murders take place in his house. His wife Sybo is the third victim. Jaris is also the last person to have the knife before it disappears prior to the murder of Lieutenant Tracy. He suggests Lieutenant Tracy use the “small chamber below this room” where she is killed. Could he have staged the first two murders to divert suspicion when he kills his wife? Jaris chides Kirk with the line, “you're behaving very much like a man who is desperately trying anything to save his friend. Would you be as desperate to save Argelius as a space port for your Starfleet?” Is there a political motive there? Later he mentions “I have already heard talk of closing Argelius to space vehicles.” Blaming three brutal murders on an off-worlder could allow him to consolidate power, and dispose of a troublesome wife at the same time. He is on screen with Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and his wife at the time of the second murder (a solid alibi) but this is a science fiction show so we could be dealing with clones, or evil duplicates.

Find someone who hasn't seen Wolf In The Fold. Sit them down in front of the DVD and pause at the end of act two. Ask them who they think is the murderer. I'm quietly confident Jaris will be the main suspect.

Of course, none of the above suspects are guilty of murder. The revelation Robert Bloch has up his sleeve is unique. It is simultaneously brilliant and utterly stupid, like a scriptwriting version of Schrödinger’s cat. The murders were actually committed by Jack the Ripper. An immortal, non-corporeal killer, who feeds on the fear of his victims, is capable of possessing people, and is currently animating Mr. Hengist. Probably no one saw that coming. The reveal of the true murderer is mad but actually quite clever. Two clues have been hiding in plain sight for quite some time. First is the location of the story on Argelius II, the planet of the prostitutes. Where else might you expect Jack the Ripper to strike? Secondly there is Sybo's use of the name Redjac. Corrupting Jack's nickname of Red Jack like this is doubly clever. It conceals the identity of the killer from any viewer familiar with Ripper history, and it also makes sense for an empath on another world to be unsure about the precise pronunciation of an unfamiliar name.

From this point on the plot takes a turn towards the endearingly bonkers as Jack possesses the Enterprise computer and threatens everyone with a horrible death. He is finally driven back into Hengist's body and beamed into deep space. To stop Jack's threats making the crew scared, and allowing Jack to feed on their fear, Kirk orders the crew to be tranquillized. Frankly the crew don't look tranquillized, they all look stoned so who knows what McCoy is pumping into them. Certainly Mr. Sulu is in no condition to steer the ship, and the scenes of the happy crew look a lot like those with the orb from the Woody Allen film Sleeper.

Two elements of the plot are left unclear. Firstly, was Mr Scott's hand on the dagger? This is understandably underplayed, the production team wouldn't want any hint that Scotty was involved in the killings. Jack's ability to move from person to person would seem to make it easier for him to possess someone close to the victim rather than try to do the deed as Hengist, and then cloud any witnesses' minds. Scotty's memory loss would then be explained by his mind being overwhelmed by Jack's presence rather than any induced amnesia. In the case of the first two killings the script seems to lean towards implicating Jack in Scotty's body. For the murder of Sybo it's not so clear. Scotty talks about standing up to help Sybo and finding something in the way. “Cold, it was, like a stinking draught out of a slaughterhouse, but it wasn't really there.” This sounds like Jack in his true form. Possibly killing Sybo in panic when it hears her shouting out his names.

Secondly, when does Hengist die? Is it when Kirk punches him, or has he been a corpse animated by Jack all along? It looks as if Jack has been using Hengist's body for years, possibly since he came to Argelius from Rigel. Jack/Hengist tries to escape when accused of being the killer so he knows he is guilty, there's no amnesia, which suggests that whatever did the killing is also the driving force in Hengist's body. It might be possible to argue that Jack leaving Hengist's body is what kills him, except that Jack is later driven out of Jaris with no ill effects. Then when Jack repossess Hengist the body leaps back into life as if nothing had happened. The idea of a walking corpse fits well with the way Bloch played with concepts like possession in Catspaw. There's a degree of gruesome appeal to the idea of Jack finding a good place to store Hengist's body, then leaving to possess someone else, then killing, and then returning to reanimate Hengist once more.

One weakness of Wolf In The Fold is its attitude to women. Bloch presents us with a world where all the women are apparently available to any man who wants them, and no man should be jealous about sharing his woman with any number of other men. Kirk and McCoy have brought Scotty to Argelius II so he can learn to like women again by leering at them, and it is implied having sex with them. Spock says that Jack kills women to feed on their fear because, “women are more easily and more deeply terrified, generating more sheer horror than the male of the species,” a statement crying out for a [CITATION NEEDED]. The women of Wolf In The Fold are to be lusted after, killed, or protected.

One last question. Why choose Scotty? For Kirk to be involved story logic dictates it has to be one of the Enterprise crew, but it's unsatisfying to imagine Robert Bloch picking Scotty at random. Like the joke at the end of The Simpsons episode Das Bus where the children are marooned on an island, “...and eventually they were rescued by, oh, let's say... Moe.” If anyone can be the suspect then choose Sulu. The poor guy's been underexposed this year. His character is turning into a chair with a helmsman attached. It's only going to get worse with George Takei's nine week absence for reshoots on the John Wayne film The Green Berets.

Bloch must have put some thought into the decision. Kirk can't be the suspect, otherwise the show becomes Kirk on trial, and Bloch has accidentally rewritten Court Martial. It can't be Spock because he's never going to be a candidate for a brutal, frenzied crime. McCoy could have been the suspect, and it would have paralleled the original Jack the Ripper crimes where the murderer appears to have had some anatomical knowledge. However, going into too much medical detail about the Ripper crimes would probably be too much for NBC. One way or another Scotty has become the go to character for physical and mental trauma. Apollo beats him up in Who Mourns For Adonais and he's put through the emotional wringer by Lieutenant Palamas; he's killed in The Changeling (he gets better); possessed in Catspaw; aged in The Deadly Years; and now this. Truly he's the Timex of Star Trek characters; he takes a licking and keeps on ticking. 

Enterprise crew deaths: 1. Lieutenant Tracy the penultimate victim of Jack the Ripper. 
Running total: 43

*to the extent that I remember watching an animated version of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (quite possibly this Chuck Jones version from 1975) and bursting into tears when it looked as if Rikki-Tikki-Tavi hadn't survived the climactic fight. Months later, I saw a repeat of the same cartoon and burst into tears at the same point, because I was convinced that this time Rikki-Tikki-Tavi must have died. Of course it's possible I was just a very dull child.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Obsession and The Doomsday Machine both tell the story of a man consumed by the need for revenge at all costs. Both are apparently based on Moby-Dick (or so the internet tells me, it's a book I haven't read) but both are very different. In Obsession the focus is on Captain Kirk and his determination to destroy the cloud vampire which 11 years ago attacked the USS Farragut killing 200 of Kirk's then shipmates including Captain Garrovick who Kirk describes as, “one of the finest men I ever knew”. In The Doomsday Machine the focus of the script is on Kirk and the Enterprise crew trying to deal with Commodore Decker and his determination to destroy the planet killer which, etc, etc.

Shifting the focus of a story from one character to another completely changes the way it plays out. Swap them over and
Obsession is about the Enterprise meeting Commodore Decker whose entire crew has been wiped out by the cloud vampire and The Doomsday Machine is about Kirk's horror as he encounters the planet killer which 11 years before destroyed the USS Farragut. It works on other stories as well. Imagine a version of The Alternative Factor in which the focus of the story is on Kirk so that it is he, rather than Lazarus, who has an insane alternate universe duplicate. Or a version of The Deadly Years where Kirk is immune to the ageing effects and must watch as his friends get older and older.

Playing around like this is fun but it shows how narrow the line can be between a great story and an average one. Some stories might be improved by shifting the focus to Kirk (the version of The Alternative Factor with Kirk A and an insane alternate universe Kirk B at least sounds like it has potential) but personalising a story for the lead character doesn't guarantee success. Operation - - Annihilate! isn't any better for including the death of Kirk's brother, that's a story point which gets lost in the episode, and a version of The Doomsday Machine with Kirk out for revenge on the planet killer immediately suffers from the loss of Commodore Decker; both as the scripted character and William Windom's performance. 

There's another example bubbling away in the background of Obsession. The Enterprise needs to collect urgently needed perishable vaccines from the USS Yorktown and take them to the colony on Theta VII. This is a just a reprise of the plot from The Galileo Seven, where the Enterprise must make a rendezvous to get vaccines to the New Paris colonies where a plague is out of control. Both sub-plots are there to put an arbitrary time limit on the main story, and explain why Kirk cannot simply hang around until the cloud vampire is killed/the missing shuttle is found. Obsession is the more successful version because it distributes this plot strand among the Enterprise crew, rather than giving it to a stroppy Federation official, High Commissioner Ferris. The deadline feels more real and urgent when the reminders are coming from Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura rather than the Federation Bureaucrat Of The Week. Even though Kirk's deadline is equally artificial in both episodes the one in Obsession is more effective.

Elsewhere in the script, making Kirk the Captain Ahab of Obsession weakens the story. Effectively Obsession asks the audience to answer the question, “will Kirk sacrifice everything for vengeance?” Of course he won't. At the most basic level the audience knows there is another episode of Star Trek next week. By contrast The Doomsday Machine is asking the question, “will Commodore Decker sacrifice everything for vengeance?” and the answer is yes, because he's a guest character and he's not shackled by the need for everything to be back to normal next week. The Doomsday Machine gets a lot of excitement out of sequences where the planet killer threatens the Enterprise but those scenes are not asking, “will the Enterprise be destroyed” (audience: “no”) but “how will Spock and McCoy deal with Commodore Decker.” A good script avoids asking the audience questions with an obvious answer. So while The Alternative Factor asks “will the universe be destroyed?” (Magic 8-Ball: “Very doubtful” ) Charlie X doesn't ask “will Charlie destroy the Enterprise?” it asks “how will Captain Kirk deal with Charlie?” (Of course a great story will ask a question as a red herring, so The Devil In The Dark starts out by asking the audience, “can Captain Kirk defeat the horrible space monster?” and then completely subverts our expectations.)

So, although Obsession sells itself as being about Captain Kirk's desire for revenge no matter the cost, the audience goes into the story knowing that Kirk will not sacrifice his career or life. This can't help but lessen the dramatic tension. The script hits this problem during a scene when the Enterprise is chasing the cloud vampire at warp eight.

SCOTT: Captain, we can't do it. If we keep this speed, we'll blow up any minute now.
[Scott looks frantic, everyone else is worried. Kirk looks as if he might burst into tears of frustration.]
KIRK; Go to warp six.

Kirk decides to slow the Enterprise even though that will let the cloud vampire escape (he doesn't know it's going to turn and attack). He decides not to be Captain Ahab, and puts the safety of the ship before anything else. In the process Kirk demonstrates why he's a better commander than Matt Decker, and why Kirk, unlike Decker, never loses his ship. It's a lovely character moment but this story is about Kirk's obsessive need to kill the cloud vampire. A scene where the captain puts safety first doesn't fit. And Kirk is soon back to being determined to kill the cloud vampire once it turns and engages the Enterprise, before fleeing again. 

Enjoyable as Obsession is this sort of confusion over details is a problem. Kirk's plan to kill the cloud vampire involves detonating an ounce of anti-matter but the episode is unclear about the power of this explosion. Spock states, “a matter-antimatter blast will rip away half the planet's atmosphere,” but once on the surface Kirk delays detonating the anti-matter until the creature is right on top of the blast, as if the explosion is suddenly much more localised. When the vampire is feasting on the haemoplasm bought as bait it is all of 40 feet away but Kirk and Garrovick react as if the plan is wrecked unless they find new bait to lure the vampire right on to the anti-matter. The anti-matter is primed and ready to blow. Why can't they just detonate and get the hell out of Dodge? Likewise when beaming Kirk and Garrovick back to the ship the episode does its best to get tension of out that old Star Trek standby a last second beam out. However what we see on screen is Kirk and Garrovick start to appear on the pad before fading, and the transporter hum sound effect also fading out. Spock raises an eyebrow and tells Scotty, “reset, energise.” Where have Kirk and Garrovick gone? The editing, and sound effects, and character reactions suggest the transporter failed to grab the pair who are still on the planet until the second attempt, after the shockwave has rocked the Enterprise, when the transporter locks on and brings them back. Somehow the episode seems to be treating the anti-matter explosion as simultaneously planet devastating, and amazingly short lived and localised.

On the positive side Nurse Chapel gets a very good scene where she brings food to Garrovick's cabin and bluffs him over Doctor McCoy's order to eat. These scenes of her being competent and professional establish her character far more effectively than ones where she has nothing to do but moon over Spock. Also, at the end of the episode is a special effects shot which must have been technically complicated at the time but unfortunately now looks unremarkable. As the cloud vampire moves to feed on Kirk and Garrovick the pair beam out, and the anti-matter detonates. In a single shot the camera must pan to allow the cloud vampire to appear to move, and then stop for the transporter effect. On top of this there are three layers, for want of a better word, of animation; the transporter effect; the cloud vampire; and the explosion. 

Ralph Senesky directed Obsession, and his work seems less inspired compared to his earlier stories This Side Of Paradise and Metamorphosis. The Enterprise work is not terrible, in Garrovick's debriefing he sits in front of a solid green background which makes for a good contrast with his red shirt, but possibly the corridors and rooms of the Enterprise offered less opportunity for shot composition than the location filming and extensive planet set of his other stories.

On his website Ralph says,

I can definitely say there was a drop in quality from THIS SIDE OF PARADISE and METAMORPHOSIS to the other episodes I directed the second season. And I ascribe the reason for this drop to the impossible expectation that episodes of STAR TREK could be filmed in five and a half days and maintain the standard of production excellence that had been established. “ 

The planet work is excellent. There's a striking overhead shot of the three dead security guards in the teaser, and after Garrovick's squad are attacked there is a hand-held camera shot to suggest a first person view as Kirk and Garrovick approach the bodies. On the cloud vampire's home world Senesky repeats a trick from Metamorphosis and has clouds, little puffs of smoke, added to the sky which brings the set to life, and also makes it look like the cloud vampire could be anywhere.

Actually Senesky repeats two tricks from
Metamorphosis. The cloud vampire is realised as an animated overlay placed on top of the picture which allows the creature to stay stationary in the frame and move with the camera. This is how the Companion was realised in Metamorphosis and Senesky's familiarity with the technique may be one of the reasons he was asked to direct this story. 

Enterprise crew deaths: 5. Two of the initial survey team are killed outright while Ensign Rizzo survives for a while before dying. Then two of Garrovick's team are attacked and one dies outright while the other is reported as being in a critical condition. When the creature gets into the air conditioning vents on the Enterprise it attacks another two crewmen, again killing one and leaving the other barely alive.The fate of the injured crew is never revealed so let's assume they made a full recovery.
Running total: 42

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Deadly Years

The Deadly Years is a good example of the balancing act faced by any writer hoping to sell a script to Star Trek. You need an exciting, unique concept, and you also need a script which is actually achievable under the production limitations of the series. You can submit your idea about the Enterprise landing party being attacked by a slug 1000 feet tall but it's probably not going to get past Gene L. Coon's desk. Unless you've written the greatest 1000 feet tall slug attack script ever. A script so good that not making it actually causes the production team some distress at which point they will start looking at ways to make it practical (“what if the slug is only ten feet tall?”, “will 1000 regular sized slugs work instead?”).

By all accounts this is the process The City On The Edge Of Forever went through (with fewer slugs). A whittling down of Harlan Ellison's original script to remove expensive elements like a hike across the terrain of the Guardian's world, including shots of mountains and a distant city, while hopefully staying true to the core of the story. Even after cutting back on the scale The City On The Edge Of Forever was one of Star Trek's most demanding scripts, costing $245,316 against a first series average of $190,000, and taking seven and a half days to film rather than the standard six. The reason the production team went to all this effort can be seen in a Robert Justman memo to John D. F. Black, “without a doubt this is the best and most beautifully written screenplay we have gotten to date and possibly we'll ever get this season.” Harlan Ellison's script was one the production team felt they had to make.

The script of The Deadly Years doesn't compare to The City On The Edge Of Forever but it does have an irresistible concept. The idea that Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and the unfortunate Lieutenant Galway all begin rapidly ageing. It's a threat the audience can grasp instantly. Ageing the main cast has tremendous visual appeal, and it gives the actors something different to do; playing older than an actor's age is a real challenge. On the downside old age make-up is complicated, expensive, and time consuming to apply. The script doesn't just call for the actors to gain a few decades they are continually ageing so the amount of make-up required keeps increasing. Plus, the script doesn't just need one actor ageing up, but five. In the book The World Of Star Trek William Shatner recalls spending three hours in the make-up chair, so that's around nine hours of make-up for those sickbay scenes featuring aged Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.

The compromise which makes the episode affordable is the competency hearing to decide if Kirk is still fit for command. For ten minutes, a fifth of the episode, the action is restricted to one set and everything is kept as simple as possible. Most of the characters stay seated so camera moves are simplified and much of the cutting is just between wide shots of the briefing room and single shots of characters. The lighting is very basic, which presumably reduces setting up times between shots. And although Scotty is present he is the only character not to get a big single close-up, the closest the camera gets to his face is when Scotty appears in a two shot with Doctor McCoy, which suggests his old age make-up has been simplified to reduce preparation time. Also the courtroom events unfold in real time which means the ageing make-up can be fixed for a significant section of the episode. 

Unfortunately the one thing everyone notices about The Deadly Years is it drags badly during the competency hearing. The bulk of act three is taken up with courtroom drama as characters rehash incidents the audience saw in act two. It would be wonderful to replace this hearing with something more dramatic, possibly a sub-plot where the infected landing party stay quarantined on Gamma Hydra IV, as in Miri, and search for a cure while the Enterprise rushes off for help from Starbase 10 and is attacked by Romulans, but that isn't possible. This is not to imply that the hearing is just ten minutes of dead air. The obvious discomfort of the Enterprise crew as they testify against Kirk is well handled. As is Kirk's constant confusion over which planet the Enterprise is currently orbiting, and Shatner's little old man chuckle as he demands the hearing ask him questions to prove he is fit to command.

Another money saving measure is the Romulan attack at the end of the episode. For budgetary reasons no actors are hired to play Romulans but this actually enhances their mystery rather than looking cheap. Writing about Errand Of Mercy I complained, “Any script with the Romulans must, or at least should, waste time explaining why each new trespass [of the neutral zone] does not result in war. Worse, if one side or the other allows multiple breaches of the zone then they start to look weak. Why tell us that breaching the zone is considered an act of war, if that's not what's shown on screen.” The Deadly Years answers that complaint very nicely by establishing that Romulan's don't talk. They are not interested in diplomacy or complaining about violations of their territory. If you cross the neutral zone you will be destroyed, and then the Romulan's will go back to their mysterious business. They are made more alien by not apparently caring about breaches of the zone beyond destroying the ship responsible.

Less successful is the reason the Enterprise breaches the neutral zone in the first place. After Kirk is removed from command Commodore Stocker (for a change the Federation official of the week is nice and well meaning rather than nasty) takes over and orders the Enterprise to fly directly through the neutral zone to the superior medical facilities at Starbase 10. The Star Trek production team made a big deal about believability. Stephen E. Whitfield's The Making Of Star Trek includes an except from the Star Trek writers guide in which prospective writers are asked to find “the major Star Trek format error in the following 'teaser' from a story outline.” What follows is an outline for a scene involving the Enterprise being attacked. As the ship faces destruction Kirk puts his arms around his Yeoman and embraces her. To explain why the scene is wrong the guide suggests imagining it as taking place on the U. S. S. Detroit a Navy destroyer as it faces destruction from an enemy gunboat on a suicide mission; “would Captain E. L. Henderson... turn and hug a comely female WAVE who happened to be on the ship's bridge?” No he wouldn't, the guide concludes. Equally, following a serious accident on a military exercise in West Germany in 1967 would a US Army officer commandeer a Jeep and order it to drive in a straight line through East German territory to bring the critically injured to the superior medical facilities in West Berlin? No he wouldn't, and no matter how naive the script tries to make Commodore Stocker with lines like, “if I could talk to [the Romulans], explain to them why we violated the Neutral Zone,” this is a major believability failure.

The purpose of this scene seems to be to contrast Kirk's direct experience with Stocker's lack of ability, and to make the audience reflect on the foolishness of a system which devalues Kirk's experience just because he is old and a little confused on the fine details. In other words to comment directly on the way the elderly are treated in western society. While this is a laudable message it's undercut by the rest of the script which is about the horror of growing old and has a very unsympathetic view of the elderly. Kirk is tetchy, forgetful, irrational, paranoid, and falls asleep in his chair on the bridge. The message is also undercut by the ending. Understandably the production team wanted a newly young Kirk to leap onto the bridge and save the day but this nullifies any potential message about wisdom being as valuable as youth.

Joseph Pevney directs again, in fact in broadcast order he has now directed three episodes in a row. Although the direction in the competency hearing is largely kept simple he does throw in a few moments of visual flair. The best is when Spock questions Yeoman Atkins. The camera follows Spock around the briefing room and ends on a three shot with Spock and Atkins in the foreground, and Uhura in the background reacting. Once Atkins has been dismissed Spock walks to the front of the frame, picks up one of the electronic clipboards, and walks back to the middle of the shot and begins talking to Uhura. Outside of the competency hearing Pevney has more time to create memorable shot compositions. The best occurs right at the start when Chekov enters one of the buildings on Gamma Hydra IV. Shot from inside looking out, the frame is largely dark with just the slit of the doorway showing the surface of the planet and its lurid orange sky. As Chekov comes through the door he walks into shadow until he stands silhouetted against the exterior. Groping his way forwards in the darkness the camera pulls back, showing us a room full of dimly lit shapes, until the lights suddenly come on and we see the corpse of Alvin. This sequence looks great, but it also demonstrates how the director has to work as a problem solver and compose shots to explain story points clearly. Chekov is a young ensign, but he's seen death before, and shot more matter of factly (Chekov enters the building, sees the corpse, panics, and runs out) this could have looked silly. As it is the use of darkness, and the lights suddenly coming on, and the decision to use weird old age make-up on the body rather than just having an extra lie down, all puts the emphasis on this being a shocking moment. Chekov is scared because it's unexpected not because he's seen a dead man. 

The Deadly Years works best when it keeps the focus of the story on out of control ageing, being elderly before your time, and the mixture of pity and embarrassment the Enterprise crew feel at the degeneration of Kirk's abilities. At times it is like proto-body horror, with Kirk's ageing traitor body being a precursor to the sort of thing David Cronenberg would do infinitely more gorily in the late 1970s. Perhaps in the end it's better the story stays away from obvious messages about respecting the wisdom of our elders because that can be a trite message and combining it with scenes of Kirk as a grumpy old man would have made for a confusing mix.

Crew deaths: 1, Lieutenant Galway. 
Running total: 37 

This week one of the background pictures of the closing titles is a photograph of regular extra William Blackburn dressed as a Tellarite, from Journey To Babel, for a make-up test.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Friday's Child

The poem says that Friday's child is loving and giving, although when naming this episode D. C. Fontana seems to have been referring back to an earlier version in which Friday's child was full of woe. The unfortunate woe filled child Fontana refers to is the (soon to be named) Leonard James Akaar rather than Star Trek itself which also became Friday's child when it started broadcasting on that night at the beginning of season two.

A briefing from Doctor McCoy gets the audience up to speed on the planet Capella and establishes McCoy as the local expert on its inhabitants. A nasty bunch who McCoy describes as, “totally uninterested in medical aid or hospitals. They believe only the strong should survive.” The few months McCoy spent on Capella offering unwanted medical advice to the locals must have been incredibly frustrating. The Federation is interested in Capella because the planet is rich in the essential mineral topaline but the Capellans put the Federation in an awkward position because all their standard negotiating strategies are interpreted by the Capellans as signs of weakness. Even the Federation's most impressive offer, planetary independence, makes the Federation look pathetic. By the Capellans' logic the best way for the Federation to prove it is worthy of the topaline is to invade and take what they want.

To complicate Kirk's day the Klingons are also interested in Capella, and already have an agent in place who has made good progress negotiating with Maab, a rival to the current leader Akaar. The Klingons, back for the first time since Errand Of Mercy, are obviously in a much stronger negotiating position since they have no hesitation in offering fun things like weapons and tactical knowledge for the topaline. That the Klingons are prepared to negotiate at all is an interesting development. Within the series this is presumably the influence of the Organian peace treaty. The Klingons must feel that simply invading Capella and taking what they want would not be tolerated by the Organians. Plus, negotiating a treaty with the Capellans will allow the Klingons to beat the Federation at their own game. It's not long before the Enterprise landing party are caught in the middle of Maab's coup against Akaar and have to go on the run along with Akaar's heavily pregnant wife Eleen.

This is McCoy's episode. Eleen is as unwilling a patient as the rest of her race. Much of the episode involves McCoy trying to treat Eleen and persuade her to see the baby as something other than a burden. Fontana uses Friday's Child to examine Doctor McCoy, in the same way her previous scripts This Side Of Paradise, and Journey To Babel illuminated Spock's character. After Eleen burns her arm on a brazier McCoy is determined to treat her even at the cost of his own life (it's a death sentence to touch the leader's, or even an ex-leader's, wife). “They can only kill me once for touching her,” McCoy says demonstrating his commitment to medicine and compassion. Then later he shows he's the sort of Doctor who wants to treat the cause, not the symptom, working to convince Eleen she wants the baby when the birth becomes difficult. While Fontana deserves praise for this approach and for focusing a script on someone other than Kirk or Spock the downside is that McCoy simply isn't as interesting a character. He's a dedicated doctor, if slightly grumpy, and that's essentially the limits of his personality. Imagine writing a short character sketch of Spock before seeing This Side Of Paradise, or Journey To Babel. It wouldn't be possible to write the same description afterwards because both episodes give the viewer new information and change the way the audience sees Spock. In the case of McCoy the same character sketch would suffice before and after Friday's Child. This is not a criticism of Deforest Kelly, who makes McCoy engaging and likeable and papers over the more clichéd parts of his character with charm, it's just a recognition that McCoy is one of those characters who never really changes. From Charlie X to his cameo appearance in the first Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Encounter At Farpoint he's always the same. Even the big revelation of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, that McCoy deliberately switched off his father's life support, demonstrates the compassion we already knew the character possessed.

Joesph Pevney is back in the director's chair, and he makes Friday's Child visually interesting. D. C. Fontana's characterisation of the Capellans as nasty, brutish, and tall is used as a springboard to imagine them as a tent-living society, presumably nomadic like Genghis Khan's Mongols. Jerry Finnerman lights the interiors with a flame effect and the result is atmospheric, and claustrophobic. The tent interiors of Capella feel more solid and real than some of Star Trek's other sets. Friday's Child must have been an expensive episode because in addition to studio interiors, and exteriors, there is location filming at Vasquez Rocks. Plus a lot of actors. One long shot reveals 11 Capellans, the Klingon, Kirk and Spock, plus out of shot McCoy and Eleen. That's 15 actors to take on location, plus technical crew.

There are a few production oddities in Friday's Child. These could be a result of budget pressure, or time constraints caused by trying to keep production costs under control. During some of the tent interiors film editor Fabien Tordjmann cuts between two pieces of film shot from very similar angles. This is noticeable just after Eleen's line, “to live is always desirable.” As Kirk says, “alright, let's go,” he turns and the film cuts to a slightly wider shot. The result is a visual glitch, a sort of double-edit, which would normally be covered by cutting to a completely different shot, for example a close-up. Here that additional material doesn't seem to be available to cover the join. Something similar can be seen earlier during Kirk's fight just after he stops Eleen from being killed. As Kirk punches a Capellan in orange fur the film cuts to an almost identical angle. Then moments later a few frames are cut from Kirk's movement as he crouches, this makes the fight move faster, but again the result is a visible jump and the overall effect is of a film editor struggling with a lack of coverage.

Later, when Kirk and Spock are improvising their communicators as sonic grenades, Shatner and Nimoy stand in front of a photographic blow-up of sky (there are what look like pencil marks, or scratches on the sky itself). Finally in a long shot of the Capellan hunting party Tige Andrews, playing Kras the Klingon, takes a tumble. It's covered in the next shot by having Andrews on his hands and knees but he's largely blocked from the camera by a foreground tree and the other actors until he stumbles into shot and dusts himself down; it looks like something improvised on the spur of the moment to cover Andrews' fall. In all three cases, the lack of coverage, photographic blowups, not reshooting the longshot to remove Andews' fall, the impression is of a production which is pressed for time which given the ambitious production requirements is not really a surprise.

William Theiss dresses the male Capellans in a bizarre creation, even by his standards. Over a bottom layer of a cowl, made of what looks like the same material as the crew uniforms, is worn a lurid coloured fur cloak which wraps around the front like a bikini. It's a difficult look to pull off, but a distinctive one. Overall the Capellans are one of the best realised races in Star Trek. They are solidly characterised, and visually distinctive; or to put it another way, they look silly but who's going to tell them?

Crew deaths: 1, Grant, who wasn't at the briefing. That's what you get for missing the staff meeting.
Running total: 36